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TV’s Irrational Fear of Politics

Jamie Weinman makes what I think is a good point—the essentially centrist perspectives of mass-market television don’t mean that characters can’t have opinions or that shows can’t portray political debates:

There are certain issues mainstream TV will always have trouble addressing, and there’s no use complaining about it; TV is basically a centrist medium, held back from taking a definitive stand on almost anything divisive. But that doesn’t mean every character has to be completely without defined political views. It’s often hard to tell what political affiliation a character has—even when that character is a politician. In an era when almost everything is politicized in one way or another, and even a schoolgirl’s tweet can lead to an incident with the governor of Kansas, it can be limiting for characters to be without opinions on these things. We don’t need to know who every character votes for, but there are story possibilities when some of them are Republican or Democrat or Tory or NDP. After all, when families get together, one of the things they argue about is politics; if you take that away, you’ve mostly got arguments about technology and s*x. And as TV is currently proving, there are only so many stories you can get from technology and s*x.

While I’d prefer a world where television programs weren’t afraid to have clear worldviews that settled somewhere other than the absolute center of the political spectrum, I’d rather shows have characters who represent a range of definitive political opinions than that they have no politics whatsoever. The idea that political neutrality or uncertainty is a default position, and that viewers will identify more with characters who have no politics whatsoever, strikes me as rather strange. Sure, when it comes to opinion polling, people may pick at random to avoid admitting that they’re underinformed or haven’t reached clear opinions on issues or candidates. But that indicates at least a sense that having an opinion is more desirable than not. If people are having even cursory conversations in their own lives about politics, there’s no reason to believe that they’d shy away from watching such conversations on screen—people both watch television and talk about current events for pleasure, so there’s no reason to believe they’re mutually exclusive.

And at the end of the day, viewers are going to like some characters more than others for all sorts of reasons. It doesn’t seem to be a vastly greater risk to float a character who has definitive political views than to put one out there who is so gratingly annoying (a la many of the supporting characters in Whitney, for example) as to be unbearable. The more television from the eighties and nineties I watch, the more convinced I become that the “technology and s*x” problem Jamie’s describing is real: the aperture of what non-cable networks seem to think they can portray is narrower now than it was when Tip O’Neill swung by Cheers or Max ran for borough council on Living Single:

That’s a shame, and I think it’s one of the reasons the networks have lost so much critical ground to cable. It’s not just a s*x and violence differential.

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